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Manuel's Top Five: Tips for Eating Out Without Eating Big

By L.K. Regan

Recently, our nutrition expert Manuel Villacorta of MV Nutrition, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, gave us his top five vegetable recipes to help us cook better at home. Over the next couple of weeks, he's going to help us figure out how to eat as healthily as possible when we aren't at home: in restaurants, or on the road. This week: healthy ordering for guys who eat out a lot.

Between meetings, networking and business travel, many people who want to eat healthy are required by work to dine out often. That is dangerous terrain. Villacorta says, "I am a foodie, I live in San Francisco and I eat out once or twice per week at most. And when I do, I don't worry so much about fat content." That's his time to enjoy friends and family, and if some extra calories come on board, it's not a big deal—"If you do it once," he says. But head out to restaurants several times a week, or become dependent on eating out, and you are going to end up over-eating. From the portion sizes to the hidden fats to the heavy dressings, eating out is a healthy-eater's trap. So today's tips are for the guy who has no choice but to often eat in restaurants. How can you save yourself? Here are five strategies for safe(r) restaurant eating.

  1. Know the menu: It's best to pack a lunch for work. But in some jobs, that's not possible, often because eating with co-workers is expected. But if you eat out from work on a regular basis, you are probably eating at the same few places near your job. So, identify two or three restaurants you most regularly go to. Take some time (sometime when you're not hungry) to truly analyze the menus. Pick one to two items from each that are the healthiest, and just repeat those. After that first examination, don't even look at the menu when you go—you know what you're eating. "This way," Villacorta says, "you take the thinking away, feel confident where you are going, take the guilt out, and reduce the risk that something shows up with a lot of butter that you weren't expecting." Granted, this may not be the most fun thing to do, but, Villacorta says, "Since you're eating out so often, you have to address the problem." If you're not sure what would be the healthiest option in each type of restaurant, stay tuned for next week, when Villacorta will identify the healthiest menu items in a variety of types of restaurants (Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian and Thai).

  2. Go menu AWOL: If you're eating out more than once per week for dinner, you will also need a plan. The key once again, Villacorta says, is, "Don't even bother looking at the menu. Even in apparently healthy dishes, there is hidden oil, there is hidden fat and salt—there is always something you don't want." You order the chicken with light summer sauce, and it turns out to be fried and covered in melted cheese. "So instead, when the waiter comes," Villacorta suggests, "ask for steamed vegetables, grilled fish or chicken, and ask if they have a healthy grain—steamed rice, or a baked potato. Every restaurant has these things, so you can always ask." Vegetarians, ask for grilled tofu in place of the chicken or fish, or a see if they have a high-protein grain like quinoa, with steamed vegetables. If the answer is no, ask if they have a pasta dish with pomodoro (tomato) sauce. That is the very safest sauce to order. Just remember: you are not necessarily limited to what is on the menu.

  3. Ask questions: If you decide you want to order from the menu, whether at lunch or dinner, then ask questions. Don't be shy. What questions? Villacorta has some suggestions: "How is this cooked? What sauce does it come with? Don't assume because something is grilled, it won't come with their 'secret sauce'. Order the spring rolls and you may find they're deep fried." So, make sure you know what you're getting. Villacorta also suggests asking for substitutions as needed. Many people have the vague sense that there is something impolite about this, but Villacorta thinks otherwise. "You have permission to ask and to substitute," he says.

  4. Control portion size: The problem sometimes isn't really with the ingredients—it's that the portion sizes are just too damn big. Villacorta has a simple rule of thumb—literally. "When eating out," he says, "don't eat bigger than your hand size. That's a good unit of measure. For grains, you want to eat one fist. A fist is about a cup to a cup and a half, depending on your hand size. For meat, you want to eat a piece the size of your palm, minus the fingers. Your palm is equivalent t about four to six ounces of meat." The bigger you are the more, er, meat in your palm. So, for a 5'5" to 5'10" guy, one palm is four to five ounces of protein (chicken, beef, pork, salmon); for taller guys, your hand will more like six ounces. Bigger guys will have greater nutrient needs so, Villacorta says, "Whatever your meat, try to eat no more than one palm size of it."

  5. Prepare in advance: There is something you can do to increase your chance of success in healthy ordering: have a snack in between meals, and don't wait more than four hours between meals to eat. "When you wait to eat," Villacorta says, "you will overeat at the restaurant. It doesn't matter if you have a plan and the best intentions and have looked at the menus—if you go into the restaurant hungry, you are going to order the fattiest and most delicious thing on the menu." We've all been there. So, if you know you are going to eat out, make sure you have a snack to kill your hunger. String cheese, some broccoli, a few nuts and a piece of fruit—these are all good options. Bottom line? "You need something in the afternoon between lunch and dinner to slow yourself down," Villacorta says. "You will still eat bread at dinner, maybe, but one slice instead of three. It knocks down the amount you are eating at the restaurant."
Keep these tips in mind the next time your colleagues say, "Why don't we continue this conversation over lunch?"